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Can animals be cruel?
March 20, 2014 6:22 AM   Subscribe

As I frame the argument in my head, only humans can be cruel, since everything animals do (on their own, no training or instruction) helps them survive in some shape or form. Can you help me explain the following examples:

1. otter raping baby seal till it drowns
2. orcas attacking an infant grey whale but then only eating its tongue and throat
3. cats toying with their prey / tearing them apart bit by bit
4. cats killing more than they need to eat
posted by cgs to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My guess (layperson) is that animals don't understand cruelty, any more than they understand time. Playing with prey isn't any different than playing with a piece of string to a cat. It's all instinct.
posted by xingcat at 6:25 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]

1. Otters who have a stronger mating instinct produce more offspring.
2. Orcas who practice hunting more often/have a stronger hunting instinct and eat even when they're not particularly hungry catch more food and can survive for longer if there is an unexpected lack of prey.
3. Cats who practice hunting skills or who have a stronger hunting instinct catch more food.
4. Same as 3.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:28 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]

Ditto EndsOfInvention. The short answer is "evolution"/"natural selection". Just takes a little reasoning sometimes to see why a behavior leads to greater propagation of genes (and the behaviors indirectly -- sometimes very indirectly -- induced by those genes).
posted by supercres at 6:38 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]

You might like (or hate, come to think of it) The Selfish Gene.
posted by supercres at 6:40 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]

This seems to be a philosophical question more than a scientific one. What is cruelty? It is a moral judgment implying the ability to reflect upon the meaning and consequences of one's behavior. Humans might have "evolutionary advantage" in acting in cruel ways too, so that doesn't distinguish human behavior judged as "cruel" from animal behavior judged as "cruel."

the difference is that humans have that extra "layer" of self-reflection. If you want to reduce the meaning of all behavior to evolutionary advantage, *including* the development of that self-reflective layer humans have, that's your privilege, but there are certainly problems with reductionistic, mechanistic ways of seeing the world (see Philosophy of Science).
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:40 AM on March 20 [8 favorites]

"Cruel" is a human animal construct. Although it's a regular occurrence these days for science to finally admit that non human animals can feel a very wide range of emotions, it doesn't often talk about the very basics of all animal behaviour. All animal behaviour (even ours) is about sex and death. All animals spend their lives avoiding one to get the other and perpetuate their line. This is forgotten by us, because our brains are so much bigger and we create much to do, to fill up that epic capacity with complications, but sex and death are our drivers as much as they are to any other animal species.

Cats don't "toy" with their prey for entertainment, their predation sequence is to do with self preservation and survival.

The feline eye is very good at picking up the tiniest of movements. Many prey animals play dead when they are caught by a cat, but when playing dead they still need to breathe, the cat can see the minimal rise and fall of this breathing, feline whiskers can pick up tiny vibrations and breaths too.

The cat flings the prey about to establish if it is actually dead or just playing at it. When they are sure the prey is dead, they will eat it. Mice, rats, shrews, voles/small birds can all bite/peck the hell out of a cat face when fighting for their lives, this is why cats play with their prey, to make sure it is dead and not a hazard to them.

Cats can also hoard food for times when prey is scarce. Look at the food covering behaviour of some domestic cats. It's believed to be an anxiety related behaviour that has developed from food covering behaviour in the wild.

For interesting reads about animal behaviour and motivation, have a look at work by Jonathan Balcombe, who is an ethologist.
posted by Arqa at 6:47 AM on March 20 [9 favorites]

Evolutionary explanations will never fully resolve this, though, because it's equally possible to construct them for strikingly immoral human actions, if you want to. And even if you proved beyond doubt that a given action was fully explicable in evolutionary terms, that's a separate question from whether it should be judged cruel. Frans de Waal is interesting on animal morality.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:48 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]

Cruelty depend on intent. We have no direct understanding of animals' intent, so can only make guesses based on their behavior (and even there it's difficult to separate our own understanding of the situation from what we're guessing is their understanding.)

On the other hand the same thing is true of other people. Other people seem to act in ways that look like how we would behave if we were feeling cruel, so we interpret this as the other person being cruel even though we don't have direct knowledge of their inner state.

My guess is that animals are in general less different from people than we like to pretend, and that they experience emotions and intents similar to our own, and that the larger and more intelligent the species the more this is true.

Reducing it to purely evolutionary terms is, well, as reductive for animals as it is when applied as evo psych to people.
posted by ook at 6:48 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]

I think cruelty requires intent, or at a minimum an abdication of responsibility (what we might think of as "careless cruelty"). I think you're oversimplifying or misunderstanding when you say that "everything animals do helps them survive in some shape or form," because this is not much more true for non-human animals than it is for humans. Animals have sex for fun, animals play, animals do all kinds of things that are not obviously adaptive and while, yes, we can come up with interpretations of how their behavior could be adaptive, that's true for humans, too.

I think maybe some animals are being cruel sometimes. Maybe not cats, they seem like they just get carried away and excited? Maybe dolphins? Maybe apes? There's some evidence that some animals do have a sense of morality, and that morality evolved. I think anyone who has a moral sense can be cruel, at a certain level.

(Haha, or what ook said!)
posted by mskyle at 6:54 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]

I would posit that the animal behaviors you described are both cruel and adaptively advantageous.

Of course, cruelty is a human concept. But words mean things, and if raping a baby to death is not cruel, then perhaps nothing is. I'm not willing to toss out the word or idea of "cruelty" just because I can explain it.

From a human standpoint, much of nature is actually cruel. This is a problem we must live with.
posted by General Tonic at 7:04 AM on March 20 [8 favorites]

Dolphins and chimpanzees certainly seem to be cruel sometimes, if by cruel you mean violent without clear cause or benefit—torturing and murdering members of their own social groups, slaughtering other animals for no clear reason, etc. I mean, nature is violent, and when that violence manifests in an intelligent social animal (including in humans), you're sure to see some messed up behaviour as a result.
posted by erlking at 7:48 AM on March 20

Dolphins bully, rape, and kill other species, including porpoises and sharks.

There's an awful lot of research about this phenomenon.

I tried to include links to google searches, but my device is preventing that.

While the phenomenon is well documented, I'm not sure if there are any hard and fast conclusions if the behaviors are intentionally cruel, but clicking through some of the articles, it would seem: YES.
posted by jbenben at 7:48 AM on March 20

I agree that cruelty is a concept based on a human understanding of the world and other creatures. And if you flip it around, you could probably come up with "evolutionary" explanations for a lot of the horrible things humans do.

I'm reminded of this poem:
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in ever other way they're light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

-Wislawa Szymborska
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:06 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]

everything animals do (on their own, no training or instruction) helps them survive in some shape or form What makes you think humans are any different? There may be some random cruelty, but I've found it rare in humans that their unkindness doesn't meet some need, no matter how fucked up. Maybe we have more resources to learn, but we also have lots of opportunities to become fucked up.
posted by theora55 at 10:13 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]

Pandas grieve. Elephants protect their family. These examples go even beyond the biological imperative.

I chalk these types of things up to "things we don't know yet." To do otherwise is presumptuous. You've asked a good question, but there's no way we can really do more than guess at the answer right now.
posted by Houstonian at 5:42 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

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